Trump, Ethiopia, and Intercultural Leadership

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Dear friends,

In Stop & Think today, I’m discussing President Donald Trump’s remarks about Ethiopia’s hydroelectric dam during a recent phone call with the Prime Ministers of Israel and Sudan. You can watch the call here and read a BBC article with helpful context here.

You may be unfamiliar with this situation, but I believe President Trump’s handling of it has both local and global importance. Ethiopia has called it an “incitement of war.”

Trump’s conversation about Ethiopia was only three minutes long. But it was a microcosm of much of his communication. As always, his words have reverberated across the world, and, as often, they carry serious implications for hundreds of millions of people. The tone, posture, and content of his statement touch on fundamental issues of intercultural leadership and how to work — or not work — toward peaceful societies where people can not only survive but thrive.

To provide some context about why I care so much about this particular conversation, let me begin with a word about my journey in Ethiopia.

 

My Journey in Ethiopia 

For my entire adult life, Ethiopia has been part of my family, a cherished home, and a place of rigorous study and passionate service. For me, Ethiopia isn’t an unfamiliar place or faraway people. Ethiopia is my heart.

In 2004, I interned at The Mercy Center, which served some of Addis Ababa’s most impoverished women and children. I was astonished by these people’s faith, resilience, and dignity despite enormous suffering. In 2005, I returned to Ethiopia to help start Beza Church and lived through a devastating massacre in the city.

In 2007, Lily and I met while I was still pastoring at Beza, and we feel deeply in love. We came from wildly different worlds, but love can robustly bridge and beautifully braid those differences when covenant is at the core.

In 2010, Lily and I got married in a tiny ceremony, packed a few suitcases, and moved to Chicago. I’ll never forget my friend Dave telling me, “Now you’re married to Ethiopia.” Our first apartment was the cheapest I could find in a rough part of Hyde Park. A neighborhood drug dealer kept his joints hidden under our back stairwell. Those were hard years, but we were together and chasing a dream.

During my PhD studies at the University of Chicago, I was mentored by the late Professor Donald Levine. Professor Levine was one of the world’s most brilliant sociologists of Ethiopia and an expert invited by the United States’ Congress to provide high-level briefings on Ethiopian politics. (Some of those briefings are published in his book Interpreting Ethiopia, which I was privileged to edit.) I remember meeting with Don in his office and him telling me, “I just got off the phone with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia.”

In 2014, 2015, and 2016, with this wealth of Ethiopian experience and study, I was invited to design and co-lead a study program at Wheaton College called “Authority, Action, Ethics: Ethiopia” (AAE). (I co-led an updated version of this program again in 2018 with the University of Bonn and my dear friend Dr. Matthew Robinson.) AAE focused on the ethics of intercultural leadership, and we dove deeply into readings focused on Ethiopian history, religion, and politics. Then we traveled to Ethiopia herself and engaged dozens of private seminars with some of Ethiopia’s most inspiring and influential leaders.  To this day, I’m encouraged by my students’ frequent remark that AAE prepared them for leadership in the real world more than any other part of their university training.

In 2016, Lily and I again packed a few suitcases, moved back to Addis, and have given our lives to serving Ethiopia through the Neighbor-Love Movement.

Ever since my first journey to Addis in 2004, I’ve traveled throughout Ethiopia — by plane, by bus, by horse, by foot. And in every place, I’ve met people of extraordinary faith, dignity, and hospitality.

I’ll always remember hiking on a mountain called Menagesha. I had gotten separated from my group and was walking by myself, when I heard an elderly woman call out to me in Amharic from her humble mud hut: “Hello! Please come into my home and enjoy some coffee with my family!” I was a total stranger, and she looked like she had very little. But her immediate response was to welcome me and to offer what she had as an expression of that welcome.

When I ask myself, “Why have I given so much of my life to Ethiopia?” it’s because of these encounters with these people, who have given me so much more. Paul’s words to the people in Philippi resonate with me profoundly: “I have you in my heart… God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:7-8).

Across the years, through teachers like Professor Levine and that elderly woman, I’ve come to see that every one of Ethiopia’s 110+ million people is a neighbor, someone created by God with precious value. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote so beautifully, “Love discovers the neighbor in every person it meets.”

And this brings me back to President Trump’s remarks about Ethiopia, Egypt, and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

 

Why the Dam Matters to Ethiopians 

Millions of Ethiopians have sacrificially invested billions of dollars into this dam, with the hope of rising out of crushing poverty. Every time I fly over Ethiopia at night, I’m astonished by the ocean of darkness. There’s almost no light outside cities. This is because access to electricity is extremely limited.

Imagine how this affects children needing to do homework after dark, doctors operating on critically ill patients, women giving birth to babies, entrepreneurs trying to run businesses. Think about your daily life, and then remove electricity from it. How would your life change?

A mentee of mine served as the medical director of a rural hospital responsible for a region with 2.5 million people not too far from the dam project. Dr. Tewodros would tell me about the hospital’s sometimes daily lack of electricity, water, and even medicine. Imagine showing up to your only source of medical care and there being no electricity, no water, and no medicine. Imagine your sick child being treated there, your pregnant wife giving birth there, your spouse or your parent seeking life-saving help there.

This is a tiny snapshot of why millions of our Ethiopian neighbors have a lot of hope riding on generating more electricity and thus being able to distribute it and sell it to rise out of extreme poverty. There are literally countless lives hanging in the balance, dangling between life and death, opportunity and poverty, hope and despair.

Now, note a few things about President Trump’s remarks about this extremely consequential situation.

 

Trump and Intercultural Leadership 

First, Trump speaks with a cavalier tone.

You wouldn’t imagine that he’s talking about a negotiation that affects tens of millions of precious lives in an ancient, complex part of the world. Yes, he states, “It’s a very dangerous situation.” But he sounds flippant and glib throughout. He fumbles through his opinions like he’s checking in with his junior partners about a business deal that isn’t going his way. He blames and boasts of punishing Ethiopia, cutting $130 million in urgently needed assistance.

If I’ve learned anything about leadership across cultures, it’s that tone and posture matter. Real leaders speak with humility and self-awareness, especially when the issue is sensitive, the context is complex, lives are at stake, and you’re an outsider. This is intercultural leadership 101. You swallow your pride and speak with a de-escalating, thoughtful voice.

Trump failed at this miserably.

Second, Trump doesn’t listen.

In the call, he asks Sudan’s Prime Minister and his advisers — some of the most important actors in this dispute — for their perspectives, but then he keeps talking. When he finally pauses to let them speak, Trump makes sarcastic commentary as if to entertain his audience. He “listens” like an offended know-it-all CEO whose low-level employees have disappointed him and now need to be punished. After they answer, he doesn’t actually respond to anything they say but simply hammers his talking point.

Careful listening is absolutely essential for intercultural leadership. I’ve lived in relationship with Ethiopia for nearly half my life, and I’ve studied the region with leading experts. But I’ve repeatedly learned that my knowledge is limited, and there are always more layers and dimensions to discover. Ideas that I have carefully developed without local input may prove ineffective or counter-productive. When people on the ground speak, I need to listen, and listen closely and patiently, especially if war may be on the line.

Lily and I recently studied the Book of Proverbs, and Trump’s mode of operation  reminds me of Proverbs’ blunt words about the “fool” and their unwillingness to listen:

l “The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice” (12:15).

l “A fool’s mouth lashes out with pride, but the lips of the wise protect them” (14:3).

l “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions” (18:2).

l “Do you see someone who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for them” (29:20).

True leaders never graduate from the school of listening, especially across cultures when millions of lives are at stake. In this phone call, and other situations like it, it’s hard to tell if Trump has ever enrolled. According to Proverbs, this heedlessness creates hopeless situations, which takes me to my third observation.

Third, Trump speaks with dangerously reckless words: “They [Egypt] will end up blowing up the dam. And I said it, and I’ll say it loud and clear: they’ll blow up that dam. And they have to do something.”

If Egypt does this, tens of millions of Ethiopians will be further impoverished. There will likely be war between Egypt and Ethiopia. The wider Horn of Africa will be further destabilized with even more devastating suffering. The resulting loss of life, home, property, education, and much else would be catastrophic. Imagine if this were your neighborhood.

Wise leaders are aware of the consequences of their words and actions, even if the people affected are thousands of miles away and powerless to retaliate. Wise leaders resist the temptation of carelessness and stop to examine themselves: “If I say this, who will be affected? How will they be affected? Will my words nurture dialogue, negotiation, and peace, or anger, war, and suffering?”

Again, this is leadership 101. But Trump comes across as totally clueless or careless in the words he speaks. “They will end up blowing up the dam.” Is that to be taken as a prophecy? “And they have to do something.” Is that an expression of approval?

Trump’s sloppy communication style conveniently leaves the door open to interpretation. He  doesn’t explicitly tell Egypt to bomb Ethiopia or not to bomb Ethiopia. Instead, he carelessly says they will and that “They have to do something.”

As so often, Trump’s words sound like a dog whistle to intimidate and incite violence. With the world watching, he sends a loaded message that can lead to war while being ambiguous enough to deny it, if necessary. The image that comes to mind is a child playing with a grenade, who throws it into their neighbor’s home and simply walks away.

Alas, from 2004 to today, I’ve observed an unmistakable shift in Ethiopians’ attitudes toward the United States. In the beginning, the dominant attitude was admiration and sometimes adoration. Today I see it markedly trending toward suspicion and contempt. The Pew Research Center published a report in September 2020 that shows opinions of America around the world are “plummeting.” For Americans who don’t care about what others think, keep in mind that these shifting attitudes make the lives of Americans serving in other countries much more complicated and dangerous.

Leadership matters. A leader’s tone, listening (or lack of listening), and words can affect entire societies, regions, and the world.

 

Do Not Conform 

I want to conclude with four brief remarks.

First, we live in an increasingly interconnected, complex, and conflicted world. To meet the challenges of our day, we need effective, ethical intercultural leaders who embrace a posture of humility, listen carefully, and speak with great discipline. But today at the highest levels of power, we see the opposite: arrogance, closed ears, and reckless words.

The Apostle Paul challenges us, “Do not conform to the patterns of this world” (Romans 12:2). How are you actively cultivating humility, listening, and disciplined words in your life? The Neighbor-Love Movement’s Covenant and Practices is a tool that helps me grow in these crucial areas of leadership, and I invite you to explore it.

Second, Egyptians are also our neighbors, just like Ethiopians. Their lives matter, and their concerns about the damming of the Nile should be taken seriously. But dropping bombs on Ethiopia isn’t a solution. The only way forward is peaceful, fact-based negotiation and mutual respect for the people of both countries.

Third, if President Trump behaves like this in such a complex and consequential conflict, where else is he operating with cluelessness and carelessness? How many of our neighbors are suffering because of his behavior? What conflict or war might be triggered? As a Christian, I’m disturbed by Trump’s cynical disregard for the value of human life.

Finally, for my American readers, note that criticizing Trump’s dangerously irresponsible leadership is not an endorsement of another presidential candidate. As I mentioned above, Paul wrote to the Romans, “Do not conform to the patterns of this world” (Romans 12:2). We need to break out of the world-conforming binaries that so easily mold our minds and numb our consciences. Trump is the President of the United States, in a position once known as the “leader of the free world,” and he should be held accountable for his reckless words and actions. We must demand better.

In this election season and in every season, followers of Jesus need to soak ourselves in Paul’s counter-cultural mandate of nonconformity. The costs of doing otherwise are too great. As Dr. King reminds us, “Love discovers the neighbor in every person it meets” — even if they live on the other side of the world. This is the work of patient humility, careful listening, and responsible communication.

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